The hotel was big and rather famous, ostentatious if not downright flamboyant, within easy walking distance of Whitehall , and... not entirely what it seemed to be. Its t op floor was totally given over to a company of inter­ national entrepreneurs, which was the sum total of the hotel manager's knowledge about it. The occupants of that unknown upper region had their own elevator at the rear of the building, private stairs also at the rear and entirely closed off from the hotel itself, even their own f ire escape. Indeed they - 'they' being the only identific ation one might reasonably apply in such circumstances - owned the top floor, and so fell entirely outside the hotel's sphere of control and operation. Except that from the outside looking in, few would suspect that the building in totalwas anything other than what it purported to be; which was exactly the guise or aspect - or lack of such - which 'they' wished to convey.

As for the 'international entrepreneurs' - whatever such creatures might be - 'they' were not. In fact they were a branch of Government, or more properly a subsidi­ary body. Government supported them in the way a tree supports a small creeper, but their roots were wholly separate. And similarly, because they were a very tiny parasite, the vast bulk of the tree was totally unaware of their presence. As is the case with so many experimental, unproven projects, their funding was of a low priority, came out of 'petty cash'. The upkeep of their offices was therefore far and away top of the list where costing was concerned, but that was unavoidable.

For unlike other projects, the nature of this one demanded a very low profile indeed. Its presence in the event of discovery would be an acute embarrassment; it would doubtless be viewed with suspicion and scorn, if not disbelief and downright hostility; it would be seen as a totally unnecessary expenditure, a needless burden on the taxpayer, a complete waste of public money. Nor would there be any justifying it; the benefits or fruits of its being remained as yet entirely conjectural and the mildest 'frost' would certainly put paid to them. The same principles apply to any such organisation or service: it must (a) be seen to be effective while paradoxically (b) maintaining its cloak of invisibility, its anonymity. Ergo: to expose such a body is to kill it...

Another way to dispose of this sort of hybrid would be, quite simply, to tear up its roots and deny it had ever existed. Or wait for them to be torn up by some outside agency and then fail to replant them.

Three days ago there had occurred just such an uproot­ ing. A major tendril had been broken, whose principal function it had been to bind the vine to its host body, providing stability. In short, the head of the branch had suffered a heart attack and died on his way home. He had had a bad heart for years, so that wasn't strange in itself - but then something else had happened to throw a different light on the matter, something Alec Kyle didn't want to dwell on right now.

For now, on this Monday morning of an especially chilly January, Kyle, the next in line, must assess the damage and feasibility of repairs; and if such repairs were at all possible, then he must make his first groping attempt to pull the thing back together. The project's foundations had always been a little shaky but now, lacking positive direction and leadership, the whole show might well fall apart in very short order. Like a sand-castle when the tide comes in.

These were the thoughts in Kyle's head as he stepped from the slushy pavement through swinging glass doors into a tiny foyer, shook damp snow from his overcoat and turned the collar down. It was not that he personally had any doubt as to the validity of the project - in fact the opposite applied: Kyle believed the branch to be all- important -but how to defend his position in the face of all that scepticism from above? Scepticism, yes. Old Gormley had been able to pull it off, with all his friends in high places, his 'old school tie' image, his authority and enthusiasm and sheer get-up-and-go, but men such as Keenan Gormley were few and far between. Even fewer now.

And this afternoon at four o'clock Kyle wouldbe called upon to defend his position, the validity of his branch's being, its very existence. Oh, they'd been quick off the mark, right enough, and Kyle believed he knew why. This was it, the crunch. With nothing to show for five years' work, the project was to be terminated. No matter what arguments he produced, he'd be shouted down. Old Gormley had been able to shout louder than all of them put together; he'd had the clout, the back-up; but Alec Kyle - who was he? In his mind's eye, he could picture the afternoon's inquisition right now:

'Yes, Minister, I'm Alec Kyle. My function in the Branch? Well, apart from being second in command to Sir Keenan, I was - I mean I am - er, that is to say, I prognosticate ... I beg your pardon? Ah, it means I foresee the future, sir. Er, no, I have to admit that I probably couldn't give you the winner of the 3:30 at Goodwood tomorrow. My awareness generally isn't that specific. But -'

But it would be hopeless! A hundred years ago they wouldn't accept hypnotism. Only fifteen years ago they were still laughing at acupuncture. So how could Kyle hope to convince them in respect of the branch and its work? And yet, on the other hand, coming through all the despondency and sense of personal loss, there was this other thing. Kyle knew it for what it was: his 'talent', telling him that all was not lost, that somehow he would convince them, that the branch would go on. Which was why he was here: to go through Keenan Gormley's things, prepare some sort of case for the branch, continue fighting its cause. And again Kyle found himself wondering about his strange talent, his ability to glimpse the future.

For the fact was that last night he had dreamed that the answer lay right here, in this building, amongst Gormley's papers. Or perhaps 'dreamed' was the wrong word for it. Kyle's revelations - his glimpses of things which had not yet happened, future occurrences -invariably came in those misty moments between true sleep and coming awake, immediately prior to full con­scious awareness. The clamour of his alarm-clock could do it, set the process in motion, or even the first crack of sunlight through his bedroom window. That's what it had been this morning: the grey light of another grey day invading his room, getting under his eyelids, impressing upon his idly drifting mind the fact that another day was about to be born.

And with it had been born a vision. But again, 'glimpse' might be a better word for it, for that wasall Kyle's talent had ever permitted: the merest glimpse. Knowing this - and knowing that it would only occur once and then be gone forever - he had fastened upon it. absorbed it. He dared not miss a thing. Everything be had ever 'seen' in this way had always proved to be vitally important.

And on this occasion:

He had seen himself seated at Keenan Gormley's desk, going through his papers one by one. The top right-hand desk drawer was open; the papers and files on the desk in front of him had come from there. Gormley's massive security filing cabinet stood as yet undisturbed against the wall of his office; its three keys were lying on top of the desk where Kyle had tossed them. Each key would open a tiny drawer in the cabinet, and each drawer had its own combination lock. Kyle knew the combinations and yet had not bothered to open the cabinet. No, for that which he sought was right here, in these documents from the drawer.

As if realisation of that fact had galvanised the image of himself where it sat in Gormley's chair, Kyle had then seen himself pause abruptly as he came to a certain file. It was a yellow file, which meant that it concerned a prospective member of the organisation. Someone 'on the books', as it were. Someone Gormley had had his beady eye on. Perhaps someone with a real talent.

As that thought dawned, so Kyle took a step towards himself where he sat. Then, dramatically, as was always the case, his alter-image at the desk had looked up, stared at him, and held up the file so that he could read the name on the cover. The name was 'Harry Keogh'.

That was all. That had been the point where Kyle had started awake. As to what the thing had meant or was supposed to signify - who could say? Kyle had long since given up trying to predict the meaning of these glimpses, other than the fact that they had meaning. But in any case, if something could be said to have brought him here today, it would have to be that brief and as yet inexplic­ able 'dream' before waking.

As yet it was still fairly early in the morning. Kyle had beaten the first rush of heavy traffic in London's streets by just a few minutes. For the next hour or more all would be chaos out there, but in here it was quiet as the proverbial tomb. The rest of the admin team (all three of them, including the typist!) had been given today and tomorrow off out of respect for the dead man, so the offices upstairs would be completely empty.

In the tiny foyer Kyle had pressed the button for the elevator, which now arrived and opened its doors. He entered and as the doors closed behind him he took out his pass-card, sliding it easily and smoothly through the sensor slot. The elevator jerked but made no upward movement. Its doors opened, waited for a long moment, closed again. Kyle frowned, glanced at his card and silently cursed. It had run out yesterday! Normally Gormley would have renewed its validity on the branch com­puter; now Kyle would have to do it himself. Fortunately he had Gormley's card with him, along with the rest of his office-related effects. Using the ex-Head of Branch's pass-card, he coerced the elevator into carrying him to the top floor, going through a similar procedure to let himself into the main suite of offices.

The silence inside was almost deafening. High up above the level of the street, with soundproofed floors to shut out hotel noises from below and double-glazed, tinted windows for additional privacy, the place seemed set in a sort of vacuum. The feeling crept in that if you listened to that silence long enough, it would become hard to breathe. It was especially so in Gormley's room, where someone had been thoughtful enough to draw the blinds at the windows. But the blinds had jammed only a little more than half-way shut, so that now, with bands of light coming in through the green-tinted windows, the entire office seemed decorated in a horizontal, sub-marine pin­stripe. It made this once familiar room strangely alien, and it was suddenly very odd and unreal not to have the Old Man here...

Kyle stood in the doorway, staring into the office for long moments before entering. Then, closing the door behind him, he stepped to the centre of the room. Several hidden scanners had already picked him up and identified him, in the outer offices as well as in here, but a monitor screen in the wall close to Gormley's desk wasn't satisfied. It beeped and printed up:


Feeling irrationally aggressive towards the cold, unthinking machine, and not a little perverse, Kyle said nothing but waited. After a count of three the screen wiped itself clean and printed up:


'Alec Kyle,' said Kyle grudgingly, not wishing to be locked in.

The machine recognised his voice pattern, stopped counting, commenced a new routine:


'I know,' said Kyle. 'He's dead.' He stepped to the desk keyboard and punched in the current security override; to which the machine replied:

DO NOT FORGET TO RE-SET BEFORE YOU LEAVE, and switched itself off.

Kyle sat down at the desk. Funny world, he thought. And, funny bloody outfit! Robots and romantics. Super science and the supernatural. Telemetry and telepathy. Computerised probability patterns and precognition. Gadgets and ghosts!

He reached into a pocket for his cigarettes and lighter, came out with both items and also the keys to Gormley's security cabinet. Without thinking, he tossed the keys on to an empty corner of the desk. Then he paused and stared at them lying there, forming a pattern - the pattern from this morning's glimpse into the future. Very well, let's go from there.

He tried the drawers of the desk. Locked. He took out Gormley's notebook from the inside pocket of his overcoat, checked the code. It was OPEN SESAME.

Unable to suppress a chuckle, Kyle punched OPEN SESAME into the desk keyboard and tried again. The top right-hand drawer slid open at a touch. Inside, papers, documents, files...

And here comes the funny bit, he thought.

He took out the papers and placed them in front of him on the desk. Leaving the drawer open (his 'glimpse' again), he began to check through the documents, placing each one back in the drawer in its turn. He knew that by now his talent shouldn't really surprise him any more, but it always did - and so he gave a small involuntary start as he arrived at the yellow file. The name on the cover was, of course, Harry Keogh.

Harry Keogh. Apart from Kyle's dream, that name had only ever come up once before: in an ESP game he had used to play with Keenan Gormley. As for this file: he had never seen it before in his life (his conscious life, anyway) and yet here he sat staring at it, exactly as in his dream. It was a very creepy feeling. And -

In the dream he had held the file up to himself. Now the thought set the act in motion. Feeling foolish - not understanding why he did it, but at the same time feeling his skin charged with alien energy - he held up the file to the empty room, as if to a ghost from his own recent past. And just as a thought had triggered the action, now the action triggered something else - something away and beyond all of Alec Kyle's previous experience or knowledge.

God almighty! Gadgets and ghosts!

The room had been comfortably warm just a moment ago. Centrally heated, the offices were never cold. Or should not be. But now, in a matter of seconds, the temperature had plunged. Kyle knew it, could feel it, but at the same time he retained enough of instinctive reasoning to wonder if perhaps his own body temperature had also taken a tumble. If so, it wouldn't be hard to explain. This must be what shock felt like. No wonder people shivered!

'Jesus Christ!' he whispered, his breath pluming in the suddenly frigid air. The file fell from his twitching fingers, slapped down on the desk. The sound of its falling - that and what he saw - galvanised Kyle into an almost spastic reaction of motion. He jerked back in his chair, causing its legs to ride through the pile of the carpet, tilting it backwards until it slammed against the window sill and rebounded.

The - apparition? - the thing, where it stood half-way between the door and the desk, hadn't moved. At first Kyle had thought (and had dreaded the thought) that it could only be himself he saw standing there, somehow projected forward from the dream. But now he saw that it was someone - something - else. Not once did it enter his mind to question the reality of what he was seeing, and not for a moment did he consider it to be anything other than supernatural. How could it be anything else? The scanners where they constantly swept the room, the entire suite of offices, had detected nothing. Entirely independent, if they had picked up anything at all intruder buzzers would be going off right now, and getting louder by the minute until someone sat up and took notice. But the alarms were silent. Ergo, there was nothing here to scan - and yet Kyle saw it.

It, he, was a man - a youth, anyway - naked as a baby, standing there facing Kyle, looking directly at him. But his feet weren't quite touching the carpeted floor and the bars of green light from the windows penetrated into his flesh as if it had no substance at all. Damn it - it had no substance at all! But the thing stared at him, and Kyle knew that it saw him. And in the back of his mind he asked himself: Is it friendly, or - ?

Inching his chair forward again, his eyes spied some­thing in the back of the open drawer. A Browning 9mm automatic. He'd known Gormley carried a weapon but hadn't known about this one. But would the gun be loaded, and if it was would it be any good against this?

'No,' said the naked apparition with a slow, almost imperceptible shake of its head. 'No it wouldn't.' Which was all the more surprising because its lips didn't move by the smallest fraction of an inch!

'Jesus Christ!' Kyle gasped again, out loud this time, as he once more gave an involuntary start away from the desk. And then, controlling himself, to himself, he said:

You ... you read my mind!

The apparition smiled a thin smile. 'We all have our talents, Alec. You have yours and I have mine.'

Kyle's lower jaw, already agape, now fell open. He wondered which would be easier: to simply think at the thing or to talk to it.

'Just talk to me,' said the other. 'I think that will be easier for both of us.'

Kyle gulped, tried to say something, gulped again and finally gasped out: 'But who... what... what the hell are you?'

'Who I am doesn't matter. What I have been and will be does. Now listen, I've a lot to tell you and it's all rather important. It will take some time, hours maybe. Do you need anything before I begin?'

Kyle stared hard at the ... whatever it was. He stared at it, jerked his eyes away from it, peered at it out of the corner of his eye. It was still there. He surrendered to instinct backed up by at least two of his five senses, those of sight and hearing. The thing seemed rational; it existed; it wanted to talk to him. Why him and why now? Doubtless he'd shortly be finding out. But - God damn! -he wanted to talk to it, too. He had a real live ghost here, or a real dead one!

'Need anything?' he shakily repeated the other's question.

'You were going to light a cigarette,' the apparition pointed out. 'You might also like to take your coat off, get yourself a coffee.' It shrugged. 'If you do these things first, then we can get on with it.'

The central heating had come on, turning itself up a notch to compensate for the sudden fall in temperature. Kyle carefully stood up, took off his overcoat and folded it over the back of his chair. 'Coffee,' he said. 'Yes - er, I'll just be a moment.'

He walked round the desk and past his visitor. It turned to watch him leave the room, a pale shadow of a thing floating there, skinny, insubstantial as a snowflake, a puff of smoke. And yet...oh, yes, there was a power in it. Kyle was thankful it didn't follow him...

He put two five-pence pieces in the coffee machine in the main office, fumbling the coins into the slot, and headed for the gents' toilet before the machine could deliver. He quickly relieved himself, picked up his steam­ing paper cup of coffee on the way back to Gormley's office. The thing was still there, waiting for him. He carefully walked round it, seated himself again at the desk.

And as he lit a cigarette he looked at his visitor more closely, in greater detail. This was something he had to get fixed in his mind.

Taking into account the fact that its feet weren't quite touching the floor, it must be about five-ten in height. If its flesh was real instead of milky mist, it - or he - would weigh maybe nine stone. Everything about him was vaguely luminous, as if shining with some faint inner light, so Kyle couldn't be sure about colouring. His hair, an untidy mop, seemed sandy. Faint and irregular marks on his high cheeks and forehead might be freckles. He would be, oh, maybe twenty-five years old; he had looked younger at first but that effect was wearing off now.

His eyes were interesting. They looked atKyle and yet seemed to look right through him, as if he were the ghost and not the other way about. They were blue, those eyes - that startlingly colourless blue which always looks so unnatural, so that you think the owner must be wearing lenses. But more than that, there was that in those eyes which said they knew more than any twenty-five-year-old had any right knowing. The wisdom of ages seemed locked in them, the knowledge of centuries lay just beneath the faintly blue film which covered them.

Apart from that, his features were fine, like porcelain and seeming equally fragile; his hands were slim, tapering; his shoulders drooped a little; his skin in general, apart from the freckles of his face, was pale and unblemished. But for the eyes, you probably wouldn't look at him twice on the street. He was just ... a young man. Or a young ghost. Or maybe a very old one.

'No,' said the object of Kyle's scrutiny, his lips immo­ bile, 'I'm not any kind of ghost. Not in the classic sense of the word, anyway. But now, since you obviously accept me, can we begin?'

'Begin? Er, of course!' Kyle suddenly felt like laughing, hysterical as a schoolgirl. He controlled it with an effort.

'Are you sure you're ready?'

'Yes, yes. Go right ahead. But - er - can I record this? For posterity or whatever, you know? There's a tape recorder here, and I -'

'The machine won't hear me,' said the other, shaking his head again. 'Sorry, but I'm only speaking to you - directly to you. I thought you understood that? But... take notes if you wish.'

'Notes, yes...' Kyle scrabbled in the desk drawers, found paper and a pencil. 'Fine, I'm ready.'

The other slowly nodded. 'The story I have to tell is ... strange. But working in an organisation such as yours, you shouldn't find it too unbelievable. If you do... there'll be plenty for you to do afterwards; the truth of the things I'm going to tell you will come out then. As to any doubts you may have about the future of your branch - put them aside. Your work will go on, and it will go from strength to strength. Gormley was the head, but he's dead. Now you will be head - for a little while. You'll be up to it, I assure you. Anyway, nothing that Gormley knew has been lost; indeed, much has been gained. As for the Opposition - they've suffered losses from which they may never recover. At least, they're about to.'

As the apparition spoke, so Kyle's eyes opened even wider and he sat up straighter and straighter. It (he, dammit!) knew about the branch. About Gormley. About 'the Opposition', which was branch parlance for the Russian outfit. And what was this about them suffering heavy losses? Kyle knew nothing of that! Where did this - being - get its information? And just how much did it know anyway?

'I know more than you can possibly imagine,' said the other, smiling wanly. 'And what I don't know I can get to know - almost anything.'

'See,' said Kyle defensively, 'it's not that I doubt any of this - or even my sanity, for that matter - it's just that I'm trying to adjust, and -'

'I understand,' the other cut him off. 'But, please, do your adjusting as we go, if you can. In what I'm about to tell you, time-zones may overlap a little, so you'll need to adjust to that, too. But I'll keep it as chronologically sound as I can. The important thing is the information itself. And its implications.'

'I'm not sure I quite under - '

'I know, I know. So just sit there and listen, and then maybe you will understand.'

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